Hillary Clinton, Frederick Douglass and Imagination: A lesson in dialectics

Asked about the significance of Lincoln’s first election to the presidency in 1860, Frederick Douglass, the great people’s leader of the 19th century, said:

“Not much, in itself considered, but very much when viewed in the light of its relations and bearings. For fifty years the country has taken the law from the lips of an exacting, haughty, and imperious slave oligarchy. The masters of slaves have been the masters of the Republic. Their authority was almost undisputed, and their power irresistible. They were the President-makers of the Republic, and no aspirant dared to hope for success against their frown. Lincoln’s election has vitiated their authority, and broken their power. It has taught the North its strength and the South its weakness. More important still, it has demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency of the United States.”

“Mr. Lincoln’s election,” Douglass went on to say, “breaks the enchantment, dispels this terrible nightmare, and awakes the nation to the consciousness of new powers and the possibility of a higher destiny than the perpetual bondage to an ignoble fear” (Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 2, p. 528, Philip Foner).

My purpose, in quoting Douglass at such length, isn’t so much to suggest an analogy between the elections then and now, or between Abe and Hillary, although some analogous features can be found. Instead, I want to bring attention to Douglass’ wide-angled, reality-grounded, and dialectical method of understanding events and personalities in his time and suggest that a similar methodology would come in handy today.

But to bring some heft to this point (rather than simply assert it), let me go into Douglass’ thinking in more detail.

Douglass wasn’t over the moon about Lincoln. He wasn’t the first choice of this great abolitionist. After all, Lincoln wasn’t a consistent anti-slavery candidate. While he opposed slavery’s expansion to new territories, he expressed no desire whatsoever to challenge this odious system where it existed.

If Douglass had had his way, the Republican Party would have fielded someone who supported the complete and immediate abolition of slavery. But the Republicans, who gathered for their convention in Chicago, had other ideas. They chose Lincoln over his rivals, including the abolitionist Salmon Chase.

Douglass could easily have thrown up his hands in despair over the nomination of the inconsistent Lincoln, but he didn’t. His deep appreciation of the dynamics of the historical process, and his political imagination, allowed him to anticipate that the slaveowners would not tolerate a president who had anti-slavery inclinations, and certainly not Lincoln, who, as mentioned above, resisted efforts to bring slavery into new territories and states.

Subsequent events proved Douglass’ right. For no sooner had Lincoln been elected – and before his arrival in Washington for his inauguration – a process began that resulted in southern secession and rebellion, civil war, and the eventual abolition of slavery. What probably surprised Douglass was how quickly this happened.

But more than a few abolitionists didn’t appreciate this dynamic. Unlike Douglass, Lincoln’s less-than-sterling antislavery credentials were their singular focus. Nothing else mattered to them. Not the reaction of the slaveowners. Not the posture of the larger anti-slavery movement in the North. Not the millions who would vote for a president with “an anti-slavery reputation.”

As a result, these abolitionists missed the bigger picture and sat out the 1860 elections.

Is any of this relevant today? Can we glean any insights from Douglass’ method of analysis that have application to the current election campaign?

Clearly, I say yes.

One insight is that it is a mistake to decouple Hillary Clinton and her candidacy from the wider dynamics of this election. But that is what is happening in much of the progressive and left social media. It is awash with criticism of Hillary that is narrowly-framed, and often really nasty. Traces of male supremacy are noticeable too. Some critics compare Clinton to the presumptive GOP nominee Trump; a few say she is worse.

For these commentators, broader considerations rarely come into view. Not the real threats presented by a Trump presidency. Not the danger of a right-wing takeover of the entire federal government. Not the readiness of tens of millions of struggling people and their social organizations to support the Democratic Party nominee. Not the capacity of the people’s movement to move a Clinton presidency in a progressive direction.

In short, they look at Hillary Clinton alone, apart from the larger dynamics, social forces, and stakes of this election.

Is this smart and strategic? Shouldn’t the entire range of factors that surround Hillary and her candidacy be taken into account? Shouldn’t any critique be embedded in the dynamics of this election? And isn’t the overarching imperative to defeat Trump and right-wing extremism? Maybe some don’t think so. But tens of millions do, because their very lives depend upon it!

Keep in mind, it isn’t the force of criticism that ultimately wins elections and makes social change; it is the force of a united and very broad people’s movement.

The Beer Barrel and The Chi-Lites

Heard this song today in a coffee shop after my morning swim. Brought back a flood of memories of Friday night in the Beer Barrel in the west end of Portland, Maine in the early 1970s. It was a small, dingy place and the gang that gathered there were mainly young workers, prone to drink and smoke (in a double sense) too much, and most of us were so clumsy socially that we could only hope to identify with the Chi-Lites’ beautiful lament – “Have you seen her” – on the juke box. That said, we bonded and had a lot of fun in that west end bar. But, oh my, the next morning did we ever suffer – hangovers and pockets emptied of our meager paychecks. Of course, that never stopped me and others from “buying the bar.” (full disclosure: a bottle of Bud was 50 cents and it was, as I said, a small place.)


On this date in 1970, four Kent State University students were shot dead and nine wounded in Kent, Ohio, by the National Guard during a protest against the Vietnam War and the newly revealed U.S. invasion of Cambodia by the Nixon government.

The four martyrs were Allison Krause, 19 years old; Sandra Lee Scheuer, 20; Jeffrey Glenn Miller, 20; and William K. Schroeder 19. (From People’s World)

Taking stock after last night’s primary

Trump wins 5 primaries and looks like the nominee. Hillary wins 4 and also looks like the nominee. Time for sober thinking and unity on the part of Hillary and Bernie and their supporters. The dangers of a Trump presidency should become the main talking point of both candidates (assuming Bernie stays in the hunt).

Prince, Basketball, and Steph

The tributes to Prince on ESPN are coming fast and furious. Listening now to Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, co-hosts of His and Hers – great show by the waywho are celebrating his life and his music. Basketball arenas were filled with his sounds last night. Maybe everyone knows that he loved basketball. Only recently he attended a Golden State Warrior’s game. He took great delight in the play of Warrior guard Steph Curry, which isn’t surprising when you think about it. He must have seen a kindred spirit in Steph. After all, on the court, the Warrior guard is innovative, magical, rule breaking, and free flowing. Off the court, he is modest and kind. Much like …

Tonight will break out some good wine and beer and lift a glass or two or … to Prince. Might even dance a step or two, but maybe I should think a bit more about that.


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